Chef John Rea Drafts His Own Path at Via FarinaMay 27, 2022 03:30PM ● By Dave Zorko
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
John Rea was going to be an architect, seeking to create structure and visual presentation in buildings. However, as Rea reached the end of high school he realized the storied profession wasn't for him, and instead found himself rather lost, not knowing where he wanted his life to go. He realized his dreams didn’t involve sitting behind a desk all day.
Rea didn’t want to “hemorrhage money at a college just because that’s what you’re supposed to do after high school.” That’s where his guidance counselor, Tom Barber, was helpful. Rea recalled Barber saying, “Have you thought about culinary school?” He placed in Rea’s hand a packet to Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis and told him, “Go be a chef.” Rea took that suggestion, applied, and was accepted. Unfortunately Rea assumed, incorrectly, that he would receive financial aid after succeeding in running the gauntlet of the application process. No monetary assistance meant a job at Domino’s pizza would need to pay the bills.
Rea said he was one of two recent high school graduates out of roughly 50 students in his group at culinary school. The rest ranged in age and paths. Unconsciously, or actively, Rea realized he “[couldn’t] be like the nervous small town kid. I kinda [had] to come out of my shell a little bit, otherwise [I was] going to pass up a lot of opportunities to learn.”
After culinary school and several early jobs, including working with a tightly bonded group of chefs, Rea took a position in the clubhouse at the Field Club of Omaha. He received money, benefits, and responsibility, but lacked the ability to create, change, and grow. In early 2010, Rea was introduced to the owners of M’s Pub, and, as Rea puts it, “that’s kind of when everything changed. That was when most of my growth happened…on the professional side—on the cook side—on learning the admin. side of things…learning how to manage a staff.”
The M’s staff included industry veterans, some with more than 20 years of tenure. That level of experience within the staff put Rea into an environment where, he said, he was part of an “absolute machine.” The people there knew their role, job, and what they were supposed to do, and he learned to “manage around that.”
Included among the staff was general manager Jay Bock. Rea told me that Bock was “this larger than life person. He knew everything about the place.” Bock asked Rea about his goals, to which Rea said he “want[ed] to eventually be able to run M’s Pub without needing the safety net of…the executive chef [or Bock].” Rea expressed his desire to be an executive chef and that he intended the role at M’s to be the last milestone prior to becoming that executive chef. Through Bock, he learned the ordering system and added leadership skills in organization and communication. The training occurred in a couple of whirlwind weeks. The intent was to allow Rea to perform a trial run as head chef while Bock was at the 2010 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
The trial run soon turned into trial by fire. Bock was one of four people killed in a much-publicized motorcycle accident on the return trip from Sturgis. Rea went from being anxious for the leader’s return to assuming that leader's position. He stayed in the role until January 2016, when an explosion, brought on by a gas leak, destroyed M’s Pub.
Following the nearly two-year closure of M’s Pub, Rea worked at Paragon for about a year, then Mula for a few months. He enjoyed cooking the tacos, tortas, and other Mexican street foods served at Mula, but it was not his passion. Jeremy Hunter was an M’s bartender who worked with Rea at M’s and events such as Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen. Hunter had moved on to Via Farina and found out, through talking with co-owner Paul Kulik in 2017, that Rea had been hired there.
“John’s food is absolutely amazing and his palate is spot on,” Hunter stated, continuing, “John is calm [and] explains why he does [what he is doing].” Rea has been at Via Farina ever since, working with handmade pasta and sourdough wood fired pizza, which were new dishes to him.
Rea is driven to learn, grow, and help others succeed. He has seen people who were his sous chefs become leaders in their own right, such as Oscar Hernandez of 402 Eat + Drink. His daughter, Charlie, who was born shortly after the M’s fire in 2016, shares this passion for food. Other children might know how to make a peanut butter sandwich, but Rea said his daughter is “the only kindergartner [making] arancini.”
Rea’s learning, teaching, designing, and constructing results in beautifully presented food. Perhaps he is an architect.
Visit viafarina.rest for more information.